Sunday, December 27, 2009

Memo To Department Of Homeland Security: You Suck

We are reading very little news from the United States while in South Africa, particularly since (thanks to my least favorite senator since Jesse Helms, Joe Lieberman) the health care bill is such a cock-up. But you couldn't log into a commercial email account without reading an account of this incident, in which a Nigerian man attempted to explode a device on board a Northwest flight from Amsterdam, just minutes outside of Detroit. Passengers and crew members are being praised for their quick response in extinguishing the device and restraining the bomber.

TSA officials are promising action, action action, undoubtedly in the form of more high-tech approaches to stopping terrorists before they are able to act. And yet, what we have so far is incredibly expensive and cumbersome security procedures that can be easily circumvented by your average Joe Terrorist. I have always wondered, for example, how metal detectors would respond to explosives made of plastic. Answer? They don't. I have also wondered why, since it is well known that one must remove one's shoes at airport, any terrorist would put explosives in his or her shoe. Answer? They don't: they sew the bomb in their underwear.

There are two machines that might -- and I say might -- have revealed the old bomb in the underwear ploy. One is the machine, which we encountered in the airport in Paris and is in a few airports in the US, that puffs air at you and analyzes the atmosphere for chemical residue. The other one is the X-ray machine, which was very controversial in the US for the prudish reason that it showed the faint outline of genitalia.

The latter machine might be ineffective in the case of a terrorist wearing fake genitalia full of plastique ("That's a joke, son"), but it strikes me that both machines ought to be in regular use. So what if they cost half a million each?

But there are a few other things worth noting:

1. This particular bomber's name had been given to the US embassy in Nigeria by his own father. And yet, despite the fact that there is now a whole group of security professionals who specialize in clearing the names of people who have ended up on the so-called "no fly list" by mistake -- a process that can take months or years -- a guy who is actually on the list was able to board a plane bound for the United States without being thoroughly searched.

2. Northwest is promising a second security check at the gate for all US-bound flights. And yet, when your favorite Radical changed planes in Amsterdam, where our failed bomber boarded his plane to Detroit,six weeks ago, there was a second check at the gate prior to boarding the KLM flight to Cape Town. At this security gate, in addition to a second search of hand luggage, there was a body pat-down for everyone. Have US passengers somehow been exempted from this extra security to date? Is it something that has been sensibly requested by the South African government? Enquiring minds want to know.

3. It was at this second search that a very polite Dutch security guard asked me to unpack my toilet kit and remove the Swiss Army knife that I had put there prior to a car trip in the fall but had neglected to remove prior to this trip. It had been picked up on a simple x-ray of my hand luggage. This knife, however, had made it through x-ray security at Kennedy airport. Explain that, TSA.

I do not obsess about these things since I truly believe if there is a disaster with my name on it I can't do much about it. What I do object to is that airline passengers are put through endless delays and inconveniences on behalf of security precautions that don't seem to work very well. They confiscate your scissors, make you take your belt and shoes off, and then let someone on the plane wearing an exploding jockstrap. The one piece of good news, I suppose, is that American passengers no longer assume -- as they did prior to 9/11 -- that cooperation and meekness in the face of jihadi fanaticism will give them the best chance of survival.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Is It? Or, On Christmas Eve, A Historian Puzzles Over What Happened At Camp

Several days ago my partner and I completed two weeks working in a South African summer camp for teenagers who have been affected by HIV. A few campers were actually infected and being treated with antiretrovirals (ARVs); most had lost at least one parent and other close relatives to the disease. As our stay progressed, the question of who in South Africa's mostly black townships and rural villages has not been affected by HIV was very present in my mind. Current statistics are that 1 in 8 South Africans are infected, although this is an estimate that many people will tell you is too low. As South African journalist Jonny Steinberg points out in his recent book, Three Letter Plague: A Young Man's Journey Through A Great Epidemic (Cape Town: Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2008), the stigma attached to a diagnosis and the erratic quality of health care extended to the poor means that many of those infected have never been tested; that many who have been tested are shut out of poorly administered treatment programs and simply go away to die; and that those who die from the effects of HIV, thirty years after the mysteries of the virus were first uncovered, are said by the hospital authorities issuing a death certificate to have died from tuberculosis, meningitis, or other opportunistic infections.

The camp I worked at is partly funded by an NGO that cooperates with the ANC-led government, and was originally funded by the Bush administration through USAID. It extends educational and medical resources to South Africa's poor majority, almost entirely black and often living in townships, large urban clusters of mostly tin shacks where basic sanitation and nutrition issues have contributed mightily to the havoc HIV creates in the human body. But the camp addresses another problem as well: that the disease also creates tremendous social disruptions in the kin networks that, as feminist anthropologist Carol Stack argued half a century ago, often help the poor to survive world-wide. Such disruptions have a particularly devastating effect on the young and on post-apartheid upward mobility. One young Soweto woman (I'll call her R) whose care I was charged with at camp described how HIV had transformed her life in this way: "Two years ago my mother died, and I moved in with my aunt," she said. "Then my aunt died. Now I live with her oldest daughter." In addition to going to school, she cares for two children who are both younger than eight; she also does the cooking and cleaning for the family to earn her keep.

Now reader, don't respond -- if you can help it -- with comments about how sad this is, since this girl is not sad about her own life. Quite the opposite, in fact, and as I have said in an earlier post, the South Africans I have met are simultaneously dissatisfied about their political leadership, angry about broken promises and inadequate public funding, and more optimistic about the future than an American would be in similar circumstances. For example, I am quite sure that R misses her mother, because she said so. Besides -- what child would not be distressed about losing two homes in three years? And yet, although she has quickly acquired the responsibilities of a grown woman, one might also point out that she has lost homes and also found new ones. As I got to know her, and she talked to me more as a friend than as a stranger who had accidentally become one of her camp counsellors for a week, I came to know her as a gritty, determined young woman, resolutely facing forward and ready to make a go of it in a South Africa where opportunities exist for the poor but can be exhaustingly difficult for an individual to grasp all by herself. R loves to read, she loves science and she hopes to go on to university to become a chemical engineer. The other girls in our cabin, several of whom were already mothers of children they cherished, had a similar grit. They spoke warmly of their love for books and for science, of the universities they hoped to attend, and of the careers they were willing to fight for. And having watched many of these young women in action, I have hope for them and for their dreams on this Christmas Eve.

One of the turns of phrase that expresses what I learned in my two weeks of camp, and that captures the suspension between what seems impossible and what the young people I knew claimed they would make possible, was this complex interrogative phrase: "Is it?" I heard it most frequently from a young friend and co-worker who was part of my activity team at camp (which was, dear reader, Nutrition class.) Said in a tone of gentle inquiry, or sometimes just acknowledgment, it was a listener's response to an unfamiliar story. Depending on context, it meant roughly the following:

"Is that so?" A polite acknowledgment that one has just said something interesting that requires no response.
"Tell me more." A heavy emphasis on "is" urged the speaker to expand on the previous statement.
"I find that hard to believe, but do go on." In this case, the phrase would be expanded to "Is it, now?" Skepticism was hardly definitive among my new friends, whose graciousness is unsurpassed in my experience. But the conversation that followed "Is it, now?" was usually actively comparative -- you tell me about yours, and I'll tell you about mine -- without being in the least argumentative.

This phrase -- "is it?"-- keeps returning to me as I try to sort my memories of camp, and of getting to know in brief and often surprising intimacy the wonderful South Africans I met there. I am trying to have faith that if I keep writing the stories people told me, recording my memories of what happened as accurately as I can, something will begin to emerge that will address the most basic question a historian can answer: "What happened?" In the two weeks I was at camp with several dozen counselors (all but ten of us South African, the majority Zulu from the Johannesburg and Durban areas) and 150 African campers between the ages of 12 and 20 (standard six through pre-matric) I heard dozens of stories like the one I opened this post with. And although I took notes, made recordings and took pictures I have yet to wrap my highly schooled intellect around what I saw, listened to and observed during these last two weeks (hence, my inability to post even after I returned to internet contact four days ago.)

One of the few things I can articulate clearly at this point, other than expressing my endless gratitude to the friends I made at camp who answered every question I asked and who were equally curious about me, is that I was dazzled by language itself for the two weeks I spent surrounded by the young black citizens of the new South Africa. As in a few other parts of the world I have been in, South African counselors and campers easily slipped from language to language (there are thirteen official languages here, including English and Afrikaans), and one of my closest friends was often beside me at key moments when campers or counselors were singing or performing, offering a priceless translation service that often included instruction on how a particular word was used and why.

The number of languages also sometimes had an effect on my brain that could only be described as crossed wires: I recall speaking to a camper once and hearing, to my dismay, the correct phrase come out -- in Spanish. He looked at me with amusement and replied, "Bonjour?" And yet although I came to understand virtually no words, as time progressed, I also grew to have a better idea what people were talking about by following expressions, tone and gestures. I learned to understand, for example, when a disagreement among the campers I was assigned to had escalated into an actual quarrel and needed to be dealt with. But I was also dazzled with the new expressiveness that English took on as well. Another wonderful way of speaking was the use of the word "borrow." "Can you borrow me a pen?" for example, is quite different from saying "Can you hand me your pen?" or "Can you give me your pen?" It expresses gratitude for your generosity in advance, acknowledges your connection to your own pen, and expresses a sense of obligation that will surely result in the timely return of the pen.*

When I mull over my experiences and my new South African friendships on this Christmas Eve, a part of my brain keeps saying "Is it?" I learned so much, but I also know it was so little. I have many things in my head, but I don't yet know what to make of them-- except that every experience I have had was a good one in some way, often because an African person was willing to take the time to explain, and to "borrow me" a bit of knowledge that would allow me to understand an event or song enough to record it in my notes. My friends taught me enough for me to have a glimpse of what it might mean to know more.

One vivid memory I have is, in the din of the dining hall, one of my campers would say after I asked her for a translation, smiling and shaking her head in mock reproof: "Radical, you must learn Zulu."

Is it?


*Returning pens is a skill my administrative assistants at Zenith know I could use some work on.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Letter From Johannesburg: Bafana Bafana

We arrived in Johannesburg yesterday and, although we did not visit the City Bowl on our first trip to Cape Town three weeks ago, for the first time since we came to South Africa it feels like we are in the Big City with Big City People. We are staying until tomorrow at the Crown Plaza Rosebank, which is in a suburb (think Westwood in LA or Park Slope in Brooklyn, rather than an American-style suburb) developed in the 1950s, as the apartheid regime was in the swing of creating separate living zones for “Europeans” and “non-Europeans.”

On the way into town from the airport I asked the driver why the South African football team is called Bafana Bafana. He replied, “`Bafana’ means a little guy who fights and win against the big guys. People started calling them that because in apartheid we could not compete with other teams around the world so we fell behind. So now we are ‘bafana’”

That perfectly describes my sense of this place three weeks in: this is a young nation that is eager for the world to know it better, and know it for the beautiful and friendly place it is. Part of why it is interesting to follow the preparations for the FIFA World Cup, for example, is that South Africa is painfully aware that people may still not want to come here, that most of the world does not know the new South Africa well, and that what they do know is crime, crime, crime. If fans are afraid to come to South Africa, the World Cup will not be the opportunity everyone here wants to show their best face, no matter how well they prepare. So the stakes are very high for this event next June: a lot of money has gone into capital improvements, which will be a worthwhile investment regardless, but the new stadiums and sports complexes will be a painful rebuke to a government that has a lot of claims on its money

It is simply true that crime is an obsession in South Africa: people tell you this, you don’t believe it, and then you come here and the warnings are endless. When and where to go to ATMs, don’t walk on the beach alone, never be alone anywhere, unless there is an electric fence, bars on the window and Chubb armed response on the way. While there are crimes that are shocking to US eyes (last year it appeared that “necklacing” might be back in the townships – putting a tire doused in gasoline around someone’s neck and lighting it, a technique invented for police informers in the 1980s) much of the crime is gang-related, poor people are the victims of the worst violence, and it is not dissimilar to crime we read about every day in American papers. Home invasions of affluent whites also receive a lot of attention, mostly because they can be terrifyingly brutal, but also I think because a lot of white people are obsessed with whether they, or their children, should remain in South Africa, and home invasions speak to a more generalized sense of apprehension even liberal whites feel when they are out of power in an African democracy that has not yet decided what it will be.

And yet, speaking as someone who was once attacked by a knife-wielding ten year-old on the Lower East Side when I stopped him from stealing my bike, has had one friend murdered and seen a total stranger murdered with a baseball bat, been sexually assaulted (the majority of women have been), has suffered two burglaries in two different cities, has been pick-pocketed, had cars broken into more times than I can count, it just isn’t clear to me that I am in more danger in South Africa than I am at home. Some of these crimes happened in dicey neighborhoods and some didn’t, but my feeling is that there is something very different in why people talk about crime in South Africa.

I do think that part of it is a kind of generalized anxiety disorder on the part of whites. Until 1994, whether they believed in apartheid or not, there was a big, bad state, a lot of acreage and a huge police force separating the black majority and the white minority. And while all the whites we have conversed with are attuned to the new South Africa, few are happy. Many speak about their anxieties by admitting that they have urged their children to go to university in Australia, Canada or England, and imagine making a life elsewhere. Some will say, only slightly belligerently, "Apartheid was a terrible thing. But it's our country too, you know." Part of me wants to say, Is it? Then I think that I made my home in a place where the main difference in the colonizing project was the ruthless decimation of the indigenous population, and I think it's much better to listen and learn.

But another aspect of this that is clearly cross-racial. Crime is one of five serious and widespread grievances against the ANC, the party that has a virtual monopoly on political power right now: the other four are education, housing, AIDs and corruption. Jacob Zuma, the recently elected president, is facing great expectations in all five departments, expectations that are tempered somewhat by the fact that he was recently brought up on sexual assault charges and escaped a conviction for corruption on a technicality. I’m not sure what that technicality was: one of my informants said dismissively that it was because the documentary evidence presented had been Xeroxed (which seems like a pretty good grounds not to convict if you ask me, but what do I know?) But as our elderly Afrikaans cabdriver (who worked in the finance ministry prior to his retirement shortly after Mandela was elected) said, “If Zuma does half of what he says he will do it will be alright.”

Of course education, housing, AIDs and crime are all connected to each other, and the country’s deficiencies are all a legacy of the apartheid regime. There was a great deal of violence, by the state and against the state, prior to 1994; AIDS had a special opportunity in South Africa because of apartheid labor systems that took husbands away from their wives for all but three weeks of the year; and the education provided to the majority of South Africans was deplorable prior to 1994, even more so because students organized against the state by boycotting school. While nation-building is a difficult and imperfect process that surely takes more than 15 years, it is also the case that the ANC party leadership appears to live very, very well; their connections are in a position to become very wealthy; Thabo Mbeki, the previous president made headlines by announcing, among other things, that AIDs could be cured by beetroot and other traditional remedies; and the vast number of Africans live in 12 x 12 dirt-floor shacks, many of which have been built out of prefabricated tin by the government in places like Khayelitsha on the Western Cape so that voters can be moved to dilute the colored and white vote there, and then more or less abandoned, the permanent houses that were promised left unbuilt. This strategy of moving voters around like chess pieces is failing: the ANC just lost its first election since 1994 in the Western Cape to a new multi-racial party, and organized protests in the townships are increasing pressure on the Zuma government to deliver on its promises.

But I would like to say one thing, having given you, dear reader, the short version of everything I have learned so far: this is one of the most interesting and exciting places I have ever been. The African people, and many of the whites, I have spoken to, are very hopeful about the future despite the daunting nature of these political and social problems. Ordinary people are also incredibly, exuberantly from my point of view, politicized. An unexpected outcome of the struggle against apartheid and its aftermath may have been that casual acquaintances in taxis, shops and restaurants talk to you about things like democracy. Our Afrikaans electrician back in Cape Town said at one point, for example, that he wasn’t sure democracy could work in South Africa. “What would work better?” I asked.

He thought for a minute. “Socialism,” he said finally. “Or perhaps communism. What we need to do is equalize the wealth in this country, not create a larger class of wealthy people who are also black.” And then he explained why.

You see what I mean? When was the last time you had such a conversation with someone you didn’t even know, much less in the United States. And when was the last time you had a chance to live in a country that was still bafana?

Posts may be suspended for the next two weeks: the Radical is traveling into the countryside of Natal where an internet connection may or may not be available.